My soul’s a flame of divine fire, a god’s voice . . .
–Robert E. Howard
The poem “Cimmeria” is usually placed (by the relatively few critics who have considered Robert E. Howard’s poetry and poetics at all) among Howard’s most important published poems. Admirers and literary critics who have considered chiefly his fiction also see it as significant, primarily because of its connection to the Conan cycle of stories. As Rusty Burke relates the story of the beginnings of Howard’s Conan tales, the poem seems to immediately precede the inspiration for Conan:
In February 1932, Howard took his trip down to the Rio Grande Valley, passing through Fredericksburg. While he was in Mission, he wrote the poem “Cimmeria” (at least, so he told Emil Petaja when he sent him a copy of the poem: “Written in Mission, Texas, February 1932; suggested by the memory of the hill-country above Fredericksburg seen in a mist of winter rain.”). At some time during his stay in the Valley, Conan came to him. He returned to Cross Plains via San Antonio, where he stayed a few days. “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” were both returned to him by Farnsworth Wright in a letter dated March 10, so obviously had been sent to Weird Tales some time before that. (Burke, “Without Effort On My Part,” The Iron Harp 1, Vernal Equinox, 2001)
Aside from its seeming importance as the poetic flash that kindled Howard’s imagination to the resultant cycle of Conan tales, the poem is interesting in its own right for several reasons.
First, as one of Howard’s only two uses, as it seems, of blank verse (at least of Howard’s extant poetry), it represents an interesting foray into the dominant serious narrative/dramatic poetic form of the English language.
Second, it further demonstrates Howard’s knowledge of and serious study of poetics and gives further evidence of a broad reading experience in the forms and traditions of poetry in English.
Third, simply by its use of blank verse, the seriousness and significance of the subject matter of the poem to Robert E. Howard is likely indicated.
Fourth, it is a marvelous, although quite brief, example of blank verse technique and a demonstration of Howard’s skills and tendencies as a narrative poet.
Fifth and finally for my purposes here, not only is this poetic subject, as indicated by the choice of poetic form, important for Howard, but it is quite possibly of seminal importance to an understanding of his world view and philosophical vision, especially because of its last section—often not included in early printings.
Before addressing these points, it is best to briefly review the origins and tradition of blank verse and its ascendency as a vehicle for heroic narrative and dramatic presentation.
“Blank Verse” in its loosest definition is unrhymed but metered poetry (in other words, verse and not free verse, but without rhyme). In its usual and narrower sense, blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter (lines of ten syllables with the even numbered syllables stressed or accented—at least as the basic rhythm, from which there is allowable subtle variation). Sometimes even called “Heroics” [see Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms], blank verse has been firmly established as the primary mode for serious poetic narrative in English since the sixteenth century.
To give credit where credit is due for its introduction into English, we must go back to another Howard, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (often called simply “Surrey”) who used the form in his translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid. Surrey was also the inventor of the sonnet form later used by Shakespeare and since known as the “Shakespearean” or “English” sonnet. [Alas, for Surrey! But such are the ways of fame and forgetfulness.] In any event, Surry’s use of blank verse, done chiefly in “closed lines”— in lines usually end-stopped by punctuation— marked the beginning of the narrative and heroic traditions that blank verse was to maintain.
The plays, not only of Shakespeare, but also of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, were composed primarily in this meter as well, establishing blank verse as the vehicle for serious dramatic poetry in that other important mode of story telling. Later in the seventeenth century, John Milton used it for Paradise Lost. And after the chiming, rhyming heyday of the closed couplet through the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nineteenth century poets like Tennyson (“Ulysses” and The Idylls of the King and Browning (“Fra Lippo Lippi“) reinvigorated the form for both narrative and dramatic purposes, respectively. In Robert E. Howard’s own era, Robert Frost made much use of the form in poems like “Mending Wall” and [after Shakespeare as is clear from the title’s reference to Macbeth] “Out, out!”
Thus, by the time of Robert E. Howard’s nurturing in the ways of poetry, the dominant narrative poetic traditions in English were two: blank verse and the ballad. I have elsewhere discussed Howard’s frequent and innovative use of the ballad stanza as his preferred narrative form [see “Notes on Two Versions of an Unpublished Poem by Robert E. Howard” in The Dark Man #6 and other articles]. Much more study on REH’s preferred narrative pattern and innovation upon the ballad stanza— both the traditional and literary ballad— and upon his use of other exotic forms for the narrative (especially the sonnet) needs to be done. But his almost sole use of blank verse for “Cimmeria” is worthy of this and other studies.
First of all, the poem is the unique instance of blank verse among Howard’s published poetry at the time of this posting. Which is the more remarkable in that it is—by the same standards that T. S. Eliot used in his praise of Christopher Marlowe’s blank verse—both enjambed (making much use of run-on lines rather than end-punctuated, end-stopped, end-paused) and melodious. It demonstrates a fine balance between prose narrative sentence delivery and poetic metered undertones and also displays Howard’s very fine phonic sense, his “ear” for the sounds of—beyond their meanings.
Likely the best way to establish Howard’s view of himself as a poet as well as a “fictioneer” is to examine his own words in the letters that have been left to us. If one studies the two collections, ably edited by Glenn Lord [Selected Letters: 1923-1930 and 1931-1936, Necronomicon Press] with an eye for REH’s mention of poetry and verse, one will be assured of his developing interest in and continuing study of poetic forms and poetic traditions and his growing sense of urgency not only to become an accomplished poet, but a published poet worthy of note. In his exchange of letters [inclusive of much of his poetic work that survives] he and his friend Tevis Clyde Smith discussed not only poetry and their own work as poets, but, indeed, move toward a planned joint publication (the never-published Images Out of the Sky [although Smith later published his own volume with that title]).
But it began roughly. In an unpublished letter to Smith, written January 14, 1926, it is clear that Howard had doubts and early disillusionment concerning his poetic skills. What is also clear, if we are to believe his own words, is that he labored hard at his poetry and the honing of his poetic talents and was already by age 20 a great reader of poetry and a student of the great poets:
I’m a failure. Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Rich aint it? All day I’ve tried to write poetry. I’ve worked. Hell, how I’ve worked. Changing, revising, aw hell! My stuff is so infernally barren, so damnably small. I read the poems of some great author and while they uplift me, they assure me of my failure. Hell, hell, hell. My souls a flame of divine fire, a gods [sic.] voice and damn me damn me damn me, I cant give it a human, worldly voice. No wonder most poets drink themselves into the gutter and out again and into the mire. (emphasis mine)
In an important letter to Smith in January of 1928, Howard, then 22 and at the beginning of his great run as a published author and poet wrote, regarding his own poetry:
. . . I never made any pretensions toward poetry. I never send any verse to any but close friends who know that I know my limitations and therefore do not expect anything great from me. (Lord, ed., Selected Letters I 10)
Howard realized that there was no money in publishing poetry, but this did not deter him. In November 1928, after receiving a letter from the editor of The Poet’s Scroll telling him that they would publish his sonnet, “Flaming Marble,” Howard wrote to Smith:
Anyway you cant expect to make anything out of rhyme. They dont pay anything for verse, of course, but they give small prizes now and then and I believe I can win some of them. (Lord, ed., Selected Letters I 22)
In a letter in May of 1931, Howard wrote to Smith:
I hope to Hell you and I can bring out a volume of verse soon. (Lord, ed., Selected Letters II, 11)
And in September of that year he wrote:
I wish we could get out a book of verse before we get too old and feeble to peddle them from door to door. (Lord, ed., Selected Letters II, 11)
Despite that tone of levity, Robert E. Howard was pretty clearly by that time much more confident of his skill and potential as a poet.
But let’s return to the poem “Cimmeria,” and focus upon this rare example of Howardian blank verse. Howard’s only other blank verse poem that I’ve been able to discover is “Secrets” which is an interesting brief horrific-erotic fantasy narrative about the I-narrator’s enthrallment by a mysterious serpent that sends him forth as a vampire.
I believe that the mere fact that Howard chooses blank verse for this poem, singles it out as important. In his mind, the poem, the place (perhaps “places”) that inspired it, and the places and characters inspired by it were special and numinous. Howard was certainly aware of the significance of blank verse as the lofty heroic meter for the English language. To him, I believe, this poem had to rise above the level and relative informality of the ballad.
Perhaps sensing that the prose elaborations of Conan, kindled by this inspired poetic occasion—seemingly of no more duration than a few days in the writing and of no more than perhaps a few moments of one inspiration-triggering vista [reminding the reader of Rusty Burke’s quote above]—would burgeon into a prose sequence, Howard sets forth the heroic verse of “Cimmeria” as the foundation of what would become his best-known fictional cycle. Howard was fitting the high seriousness of the form to the high seriousness and significance of the occasion for him as a writer.
The often originally omitted last section of the poem [they are “sections” rather than “stanzas” due to the irregular numbers of lines] is significant to both my fourth and final points. The section follows:
Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.
(as it appears in The Howard Collector #7, Winter 1965)
Technically, this exhibits the poetic flow achieved as Howard makes fine use of enjambment, breaking out of the end-stopped first two lines to conclude with the fine rolling cadences of the final four, rolling from one line to the in the fairly regular iambic pentameter base (lines 2, 3, and 4 exhibit the base meter quite well: u/u/u/u/u/ [note: I’m using “u” for unstressed/unaccented and “/” for stressed/accented syllable]). But Howard was not a slave to that basic metrical plan, varying it frequently in the poem, but specifically:
- in line 1 of the final section by inverting the third foot, using a trochee (/ u) rather than an iamb (u /):
u / u / / u u / u /
Oh soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
- in lines 5 and, more subtly in 6, of the final section by substituting anapestic feet (u u /) for iambic (u /) in the second position:
u / u u / u / u / u /
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
u / u u / u / u u /
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.
- in the final section, showing nice use of secondary stress or promotion of the syllable (“”) for rhythmic variation with “and” in the final line.
- He also uses extrametrical syllables as in the last line of the second section and the penultimate line of the third, adding an unaccented 11th syllable.
In addition to metrical variation and the achievement of flow through the use of enjambment, Howard also demonstrates his customary ear for echoing effects by including alliteration: “soul” and “shadowed” in line 1, “grey” and “ghosts” in lines 3 and 4, and “search” and “Cimmeria” in lines 5 and 6. He uses both alliteration and internal rhyme in line two with “shun” and “sun.”
Finally, the poem’s unmetrical, fragmentary opening: “I remember . . . ” combines with the final two sections to clearly delineate the theme of reincarnation. “It was so long ago and far away / I have forgot the very name men called me” and “How many deaths shall serve to break at last / This heritage which wraps me in the grey / apparel of ghosts . . .” leave us little room to doubt this note resounding through the poem.
But is the poem merely an inspired fictive musing, the “I” voice merely a literary persona? Is the poem only to be seen as the seed whence Conan the Cimmerian springs forth? I think not. Rather, I believe that this mystical vision of previous lives and incarnations was part of Howard’s essential philosophy as it evolved the last few years of his brief life. There is more in the letters, other poems, and his fiction to support this, but enough for this discussion to suggest it here.
One important question for further study and debate is the nature of the “I” in the poem. Written—by Howard’s own statements at any rate—before the conception of Conan as a character (albeit shortly before), we might understand this “I” who remembers the vistas of the dim land and the hauntings of past lives depicted in the poem as Howard himself. Is this Cimmeria only a land of Howard’s imagination, clearly understood as such by the young poet, or is it an attempt to express a faintly perceived belief, the dimly seen “truth” of a racial memory? Be that as it may. But, without doubt, it is the still unembodied voice of a character evolving, a shape emerging from the mist of Howard’s creative imagination who will soon be born to full manhood and named Conan.